Christians everywhere are frequently seen bemoaning the overall lack of unity in the church. Disagreements abound and are deeply divisive on subjects such as baptism, communion, free will, and spiritual gifts. This fact has also been used as evidence against the truth of the Christian worldview. If Christianity were true, wouldn’t every Christian think and believe the same?
In 1978, the People’s Temple community in Jonestown, Guyana decided to commit mass suicide. Nine-hundred-nine of the members voluntarily took cyanide poison. Those who refused were murdered.
In March of 1997, 38 members of the Heaven’s Gate community ingested cyanide and arsenic because of their belief that to do so would place them on-board a UFO to another dimension.
In a recent interview conducted in this column, a former member of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (Jehovah’s Witnesses) told of how his differing of ideas from the ones embraced by that community led to ostracization, loss of all his friends, and loss of his wife. His story is a common one for former JW’s.
In January of 1521, reformer Martin Luther was excommunicated by Pope Leo X because he refused to recant a number of statements in his writings that disagreed with the official teachings of the Catholic Church.
One of the founding and sustaining principles of the United States is that of the separation of church and state. This ideal was prompted by the tyranny the founding fathers saw in the state religions common all over Europe at the time. In the countries that practiced state religion, every citizen of that country was required to be member of the official church of that particular country. Moreover, the reigning sovereign of that country was often considered the head of the state church such that they had absolute authority both in areas of government and religion.
In founding a republic, the founding fathers hoped to make the government accountable to the people rather than forcing the people to follow laws in which they had no say. Likewise, in establishing freedom of religion, they hoped to give each individual within the country the freedom to make considered decisions about their own personal beliefs instead of forcing them to embrace doctrines and ideas that they might find unreasonable or unconscionable.
The freedom that each individual has to decide what they believe is both a tremendous liberty and an awesome responsibility. On the one hand, the individual is allowed – nay, encouraged – to examine what they are being taught and to accept it or reject it as their own reason dictates. On the other hand, no individual has the excuse of simply having to go along with what they are taught and thereby remain unaccountable for the consequences of that teaching.
This personal responsibility for beliefs is encouraged and even commanded by scripture. In Acts 17, the Christian missionaries Saul and Silas arrive in the town of Berea and begin teaching about the resurrected Christ in the Jewish synagogue. Rather than simply accepting what they were being told, however, the Bereans searched through the Tanakh (the Hebrew scriptures) to see if what Paul and Silas were teaching was accurate to scripture. For this, the Bereans were called “noble.”
In the book of Philippians, this same Apostle Paul places the responsibility for salvation directly on the shoulders of the individual when he says “…not only in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” The Apostle John does the same when he says, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.”
The New Testament is replete with warnings against false teachers and commands that the individual is responsible for examining what they are being taught.
Disagreement is a symptom of ignorance, not of knowledge. If every individual was omniscient – knew all things that were true and believed nothing that was false– there would be no disagreement. Since this is not the case, since all people are deficient in knowledge to one degree or another, disagreement is a natural consequence of thinking – a person who is in agreement with all people is a person who does not exercise free thought.
If all Christians were in agreement all of the time, this would, in fact, be a warning sign against that belief system; just as it would if all scientists or all politicians were in 100% agreement all of the time. Groups that are in 100% agreement consist of one absolutely sovereign leader and a number of mindless followers. These groups are called cults, and they never end well.